Friday, October 25, 2019 /26 Tishrei, 5780
Parashat B’reisheet Genesis 1:1-6:8
“If I confess what motivated me, a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of humans. God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender.”
– Rabbi Regina Jonas
This week Jewish communities all over the world are observing the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first female to have ever been ordained as a rabbi. Born in Berlin in 1902, she grew up to two religious educators in a close-knit orthodox community. She excelled in her studies from a young age, and she began to dream—quite remarkably—of becoming the first female rabbi. Fortunately, her rabbi encouraged her to pursue her dream. Women sometimes studied with the men at Hochshule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, but only men had ever sought ordination. In 1930, she submitted a thesis entitled “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” In it she made a thorough and impressive case for her ordination. She would wait five more years before she could convince a rabbi to ordain her. Even then, it was not easy for her to find employment. She devoted herself to teaching and visiting people who were sick, until a greater need surfaced as the Nazis rose to power. Rabbi Jonas spent years serving as a traveling rabbi for congregations without a spiritual leader, giving hope and spiritual uplift to communities that needed it. When she was deported to Theresienstadt, she dedicated her time to offering lectures, pastoral care, guidance and support for her fellow Jews, alongside Rabbi Leo Baeck, Viktor Frankl, and other preeminent scholars, thinkers, and Jewish leaders. In October 1944, during the week of Parashat Bereishit, she was sent to Aushwitz and died shortly thereafter.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Rabbi Jonas’ story was barely mentioned. Regina would not be given her due credit until 1991. Then, researcher Dr. Katerina von Kellenbach found her ordination and teaching certificates, newspaper articles about her ordination, and pictures of her in Rabbinic robes, and shared this information with the world.
Though Rabbi Jonas was forgotten for 47 years, her dedication, determination and rabbinic talents had an undeniable impact on the Jews she served, and the future of the rabbinate. This shabbat we take time to remember her, and to honor her considerable legacy. Her memory is and will always be a blessing.